I had a very unusual, unsettling experience recently. It was a workday and I was out of town, with meetings scheduled in the morning and afternoon. So I had a break in the middle of the day and found myself in a little cafe, having lunch by myself. I always have reading material with me, especially for times like that when I have a few moments to myself. Also, I learned years ago when I first began traveling for business, to always have a book or magazine ready for those times when I might have to dine alone.
On this particular day I had quickly grabbed a newsletter (the top item on the pile of things needing attention on my desk). I was not prepared for what happened to me in that cafe.
Before I explain my intense reaction, however, I want to share with you the words I read in that newsletter:
There have been times in my life when I have felt shut out, or simply “outside.” When I just haven’t “fit” – either into what other people wanted from me or what I thought I was supposed to be. For whatever reason, it never felt good.
I identified where I have most profoundly felt shut out. It was when I began to realize I did not fit into the categories of what it meant to be a girl/woman. I rarely dated. My sister always did. Boys never just stopped by to see me. They often did for my sister. I was never thin or in anyway especially attractive and I just didn’t “get” flirting.
My sister gave me advice to correct the situation. She said, “Just talk about the
boy. Focus on what he likes. Talk about his sports or his last game. When you start doing that, you’ll see. It’ll get better.”
It never got better. I just didn’t get it. It sounds like such a small thing saying it out
loud. But it was a huge gaping hurt that shaped how I thought about myself. I understood there was something innately wrong with me because I just didn’t seem to “fit” into what I thought I was supposed to do and be as a young woman.
. . .
Sue Monk Kidd, in her book “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” describes these sorts of expectations on women as “cultural blueprints.” They are cutouts of what is “allowed” for women to live. If one doesn’t live into them or try to meet them, then one just doesn’t “fit” and when that happens, it causes pain, separation and questions of self worth.
My students are reading Dance of the Dissident Daughter, and we were discussing these cultural blueprints, which ones fit them or that they had observed in other women around them. The Many Breasted Mother who feeds and serves so many people, all the time and somehow never has time to feed herself was a woman they recognized, as well as The Favored Daughter. This is the woman who spends her life, energies and talents seeking out the blessing of the Father; their actual Father, or Father Church or the whole male dominated system. The strikingly sad aspect is though they seek out the blessing, it is never given and it never will be. The one they all knew though, each of them, in themselves, their mothers, sisters, aunts was The Silent Woman. From their early days they understood their job was to keep their mouths shut, opinions (if they even had any) to themselves and to remain silent.
As we were talking, one young woman said in surprise “You know, I don’t think I have ever talked back to anyone. Ever. To no one.” The more she thought about it the more astonished she was by her epiphany.
For centuries women have been shut out, pushed down and told to remain silent and given set parameters of what they are supposed to be and to fit into. This attitude and relationship toward women has been systematized and affirmed by religion. Whether its cultural blueprints or religious laws of purity, the value and worth of women has been defined by the church as needing to “fit” into a small arena that makes them definitely less than a man.
This is really what this story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well is all about. The religious laws of Jesus’ day made it clear what women had to do to be considered worthy. If they didn’t, they weren’t. The thing about Jesus is he didn’t buy into it at all.
About three-and-a-half years ago I had another experience of being shut out and not fitting in. I had attended a training weekend for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), put on by the Church of the Nazarene. The ELCA was trying to learn how to evangelize from them, and when I expressed concern about their fundamentalist theology I was told to simply “sift through that stuff” and glean the good information. ‘It’s not that big of a difference,” they said. I went as one of 11 Lutheran clergy. I was the only woman.
The opening night was filled with videos depicting people drowning in a lake right next to a boat with a man holding life preservers. While he talked to the camera crew, people in back of him screamed for help and they struggled against the water. Finally they all drowned. “This,” we were told, “is what happens when you don’t share the good news. People will go to hell. You are letting them drown in sin.”
It didn’t get any better. There were consistently bad jokes told, usually at the expense of some group, often women or other religions so that it felt decidedly like a locker room or frat party. The last morning was the worst. It was when I understood I was totally “outside” and the doors slammed in my face.
The pastor, who was in charge of the whole training, and indeed the Executive Director for this National Church Movement, took the stage. He began by doing a Bible study on Matthew 5, where the Pharisees are testing Jesus and they ask him, “What about a woman who has been married to 7 brothers. In heaven, whose wife would she be?”
The Pastor said, “Well, I’m sure Jesus must have said, ‘What do mean whose wife would she be? Think about it, she marries the first brother and what happens? Dead! Then she’s given to the next brother. What happens? Dead! Then she goes to the next brother. Dead! And she’s given to the next one. Dead!”
He had the whole crowd screaming “Dead” after every brother had had the woman. It was loud and violent.
He finished by saying, “God’s response would surely be ‘What do you mean whose wife would she be? Who’d want her?’” The entire place erupted in laughter.
This woman is the Samaritan Woman at the Well. This woman is me. This is all the Silent Women. This is everyone ?who has ever been put out by the use of the voice of God condemning, laughing, shaming and despising. It has gone on since the time of Jesus, and it continues to go on today. In the name of Christianity people are put out, named as sinner, abomination and immoral.
Last week a President of a large Southern Baptist Seminary wrote an article where he warned that it looked as though science would likely prove that homosexuality is biological and not a choice. He then proceeded to say that good, faithful Christian families will want to seriously consider invitro gene therapy and taking medications that would prevent the “gay gene” in their future babies . . . because . . . he said, “The Bible still says it is a sin and an abomination.”
Religion and Christianity has practiced shutting people out in the name of following God and being “good.” The thing about Jesus is, he wasn’t a very “good Christian.” He wasn’t a very good Jew either, at least according to the laws. Jesus heard something else and lived according to that voice. He was hooked into something bigger and he allowed it to change him and how he saw others.
The woman at the well and the woman with 7 husbands would have been seen as worthless, used up women who couldn’t do what women were supposed to do. The reason they had so many husbands is because of a religious practice called the Levitirite of marriage. If a man dies before producing a male heir, the woman is given to his brother to produce that male baby that will then carry the name of the first brother. She is forced to have sexual relations with the brother; as many as to whom she is given.
Sitting in that conference room surrounded by Christian, moral, religious men, each time they yelled “Dead!” – all I could think about was that woman having to be raped by each of those brothers. That’s really what the practice became because no brother wanted to produce a male boy that would be a rival to his own. And no wife wanted another rival to her. So in the end everyone hated these women.
Jesus should have seen this when he waited for her at the well. I believe the story is written for you and I to “get” that he is waiting for someone that everyone else has forgotten. No one goes to the well at noon. No one stops and sits at a well at noon. It’s too hot. Not a good place to get shade or rest. Jesus wants to meet this woman and this woman is so shut out that no one else would meet her.
I don’t know how to express how important this is. Jesus did not live the way of Christianity. Jesus chose to keep his eyes on a woman who was invisible. Jesus wanted to talk to a woman who had forgotten she had a name other than “dog.” It is Jesus voice who says “I betcha think I don’t know nothin’ about you . . . about your life, your hurts.’ And it is Jesus who says “Have I got news for you, I’m something, I hope you think that your [sic] something too.”
The first thing to awake in people who follow Jesus is their own worth. Whether we “fit” or not is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. The religious God talk of good and bad, moral and immoral – is NOT part of Jesus.
To know Jesus is to know that he thinks he is “something” and because of that he thinks you’re something too! “You are something too!”
This is the first awakening when you know Jesus. “I am something! I am something! I am something!” And this is quickly followed by. . . “I hope you think you’re something too.” And then…the world begins to tilt.
My world tilted right there in that little cafe. As I read those words, I realized that tears were rolling down my cheeks and I felt an incredible relief, as though I were a big balloon into which someone had just stuck a pin.
Like the author, I have never fit into the traditional image of “what I thought I was supposed to do and be as a young woman.” I tried, but always came up short, as the guy who was my first big crush in high school reminded me on a daily basis, cementing into my soul a vision of myself as unattractive, undesirable and unworthy that I would not be able to shake off for many years. (And, truth be told, have never fully shaken off, despite many subsequent relationships, including a long-term marriage.) I don’t know what category Sue Monk Kidd uses to describe women like me, but I am ordering her book and will find out.
I have never been The Silent Woman. On the contrary, I have always been the woman who could not help but speak up in the face of injustice or unethical conduct, no matter what the cost, so it came as no surprise to many folks when I announced that I was going to law school or that I have chosen to specialize in civil rights law, frequently fighting for folks who are incapable of fighting for themselves or standing side by side with those who seek equality for themselves or others.
I spoke out — not just as a member, but also a worship and administrative leader — within the institutional church and Amy Jo’s words resonated with me because, even though until just a few months ago, I remained there my whole life, I always felt “shut out, pushed down and told to remain silent and given set parameters of what [I was] supposed to be and to fit into.” But I never felt like I fit in.
The thing about Jesus is, he wasn’t a very “good Christian.”
Because I don’t cook, I didn’t have any recipes to contribute to the cookbook published by the other women in the congregation. There was a time when I was “crafty” but it has been more than 20 years since I did any counted cross-stitch, etc. so I didn’t fit into the women’s craft group. The only Bible studies “for women” took place during the workday, so those were out of the question and, frankly, when the titles and themes were announced, they always left me rolling my eyes and shaking my head in disbelief because they always sounded like they were designed for June Cleaver and her friends. The choir? A musical calamity to which I could not even listen in the pew on Sunday mornings, much less contribute.
And then there were the various “Men’s” groups. They always had their own clubhouse into which women were not admitted.
So I carved out my own niche . . . I contributed my talent as a musician, writer and “techie.”
Still, I always knew that I didn’t fit in and was not part of the female clique.
For one thing, I could never sit silent while, “[i]n the name of Christianity people [were] put out, named as sinner, abomination and immoral.” And because of that, I was frequently shunned by members of the church’s “in crowd.”
Not too long ago, I was in a Sunday morning class on the topic of homosexuality. I had to get up and leave when the discussion deteriorated to a level that left me feeling nauseated with disgust. One of the male leaders of the congregation stood and opined that he had a solution for the whole “problem” of what to do about homosexuals’ desire to be part of the church: “It’s very simple. Just let them have their own church and we’ll have ours.” The rest of the class applauded. It was, as Amy Jo said, a perfect example of how “[r]eligion and Christianity has practiced shutting people out in the name of following God and being ‘good.'”
I’ve heard the story of the woman at the well countless times over the years . . . always explained by a male pastor and always with a different emphasis. Never before had I heard it explained from the perspective the author embraces.
As I read her words, I thought about the quote from Kahlil Gibran. By remaining a member of an organized religion that still operated within an outdated and unjust patriarchal framework, I spent too many years, in the name of conforming, serving and being “good,” cutting my wings with my own hands and suffering my soul to crawl upon the earth. Even though I spoke out there, I remained invisible, chained by my own inability to stop squandering my talents, and spread my wings and fly away.
But through it all, “Jesus chose to keep his eyes on a woman who was invisible.” He kept his eyes on me and empowered me to embark on a new journey toward understanding and embracing what his message was really all about.
The author’s words helped frame that journey for me. I am grateful and blessed by her insight, as well as the observations and guidance of other strong, informed and empowered women who, in turn, empower me to spread my wings and fly toward an understanding of my life’s purpose(s), achievement of my goals and, hopefully, the grace to make at least one other person’s life a little better or their burden a little lighter.